Friday, March 2, 2012

Would Spinoza Tell You to Kill Your Baby?

link to The Telegraph story
I recently had the opportunity to review The Spinoza Problem by Irvin D. Yalom, a novel in which the author gives rightful credit to the famous Dutch philosopher as catalyst for the Enlightenment.

Spinoza was a rationalist, a thinker excommunicated because of his rejection of religious tenets.  
Rationalism: "A belief or theory that opinions and actions should be based on reason and knowledge rather than on religious belief or emotional response."
The idea of "reason," and how it can be manipulated to rationalize the repugnant, regularly comes to mind when I think about the philosophy of Peter Singer and his fellow travelers. The latest of those, perhaps even more strident in their rationalism, is Francesca Minerva, as reported here in a recent article in the British tabloid, Daily Mail.
Doctors should have the right to kill newborn babies because they are disabled, too expensive or simply unwanted by their mothers, an academic with links to Oxford University has claimed.
Francesca Minerva, a philosopher and medical ethicist, argues a young baby is not a real person and so killing it in the first days after birth is little different to aborting it in the womb. Even a healthy baby could have its life snuffed out if the mother decides she can’t afford to look after it, the article published by the British Medical Journal group states.
Rhetorical propaganda, that newspaper's language, no doubt, and meant to incite. All the same, the scholar's idea reeks of the very "utilitarianism" championed by the Singerests: convenience in the now seemingly without regard to its influence on the evolutionary process of societies.
Utilitarianism:  "The doctrine that actions are right if they are useful or for the benefit of a majority ... that an action is right insofar as it promotes happiness, and that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the guiding principle of conduct."
The article is interesting in many ways, although it is a screed rather than reportage. There is an interesting sidebar about infanticide through history and the cultures where it is accepted de facto today.

Fundamentally, Minerva outlines a philosophical rationale for post-birth "abortion," for the lack of a better word. 
To bring up such children might be an unbearable burden on the family and on society as a whole…On these grounds, the fact that a foetus has the potential to become a person who will have an (at least) acceptable life is no reason for prohibiting abortion.
The position, as I understand it, finds no real difference between the idea that a woman who has the right to choose at the point when she is three months pregnant—setting aside any testing that might rule out disability or confirm gender and acknowledging only the the child is not desired—retains the "right to choose" past the birth of the child. For example, a woman might change her mind about the desirablity of motherhood when the child is, perhaps, two months old ("first days" being ambivalent) and opt for infanticide.

In fact, I was confused about the time period allowed, not being able to find it in any news report, other than the amorphous "first days." Dr. Minerva's paper is not accessible on-line, but this is the abstract published on the British Journal of Medical Ethics website:
Abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the fetus' health. By showing that (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and (3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people, the authors argue that what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.
Note point three in the abstract—"adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people." The word "actual" is confusing in context, but no one can argue that many older children languish in limbo, considered not worthy of adoption because of reasons that might range from race to disability. 

One of the more interesting thoughts on the subject came from The Telegraph in Britain, speaking of the philosophers. 
However, they did not argue that some baby killings were more justifiable than others – their fundamental point was that, morally, there was no difference to abortion as already practised.
For those of us who navigate through this world guided by whimsy and an appreciation of irony, that observation reeks of both. Somewhere Jonathan Swift is smiling over the philosophers' modest proposal

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